I was recently posed the question: do I see
myself a Dallas Jew? I’m not used to thinking of myself as a Dallasite yet, but
I guess I kind of am at this point. After 12 (almost 13!) years, I’ve now lived
in Dallas longer than I’ve lived in any other city, even longer than the cities
I grew up in – seven years in Tokyo, Japan (until age 10), followed by eight
years in Palo Alto, California.
I’m half-Japanese, and I look more like my Japanese mother than my mostly Yekkishe father (my mother and I underwent conversion at the time I was 12). I generally work under the assumption that I stand out to some degree when I visit a new shul or go to a Jewish event where people don’t know me. As long as nobody acts in a weirdly intrusive way (which is fortunately rare), I figure there’s no foul. The number of times I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in Jewish communal settings as a result of my ethnicity has been extremely small. I remember feeling much more self-conscious about standing out because of my ethnicity when I was still a young, unmarried adult who was moving to a new city every few years. I suppose that a benefit of having lived in a single community and attending the same shul for more than a decade, as I’ve done here in Dallas, is that things like looking a bit out of the ordinary stop making much of a difference. People get used to each other. There’s also the fact that I’m getting into middle age now, already married and with kids, and so I have the luxury of not having to care as much about how strangers view me. Which is a real blessing.
Would I go so far as to call myself a Texan? As much as I’ve enjoyed my life here in Texas, I probably would not, because doing so wouldn’t be quite fair to my wife and kids who were actually born here. Besides, all in all I’m still much more of a product of Japan and California than I am of Texas, and this will probably never change. My heart has a Tokyo- and San Francisco Bay Area-shaped hole that, to be honest, has gradually gotten only larger the longer I’ve been away. But Dallas is an amazing city, and I’ve become quite the advocate for Texas in general and Dallas in particular when interacting with my coastal friends and family. They sometimes have pretty funny ideas about what Texas is like. But I can’t blame them, because I used to be like that too!
Truth be told, moving to the South has been somewhat of a homecoming for me. My paternal grandmother and her family hails from Alabama (take a minute to Google my father’s mother’s father, Joseph Gelders, for some interesting history). My grandmother A”H and especially my great-grandmother A”H both retained a diminished yet noticeable southern accent throughout their lives. And I have a smattering of distant relatives spread throughout Texas from that side of the family. Becoming a Southern Jew has felt not so much like taking on a new identity as much as reclaiming an old one.
I’m part of a JoC (Jews of Color) group on Facebook and follow a number of other JoCs on Twitter. One thing I’ve gotten out of following the conversations there is that I’ve learned to disambiguate my experience as a convert from my experience as a Jew of color (or, if you prefer, a Jew of an ethnic background that is atypical within the larger Jewish population). For me, the two experiences are so intertwined that it can be easy for me to forget that they are distinct.
A case in point: I have the name I was given at birth (Isamu, a Japanese name meaning “courage”), and I have the name I was given upon conversion (Amatziah, which is a cognate of the Hebrew word ometz, or courage). I continue to go by Isamu professionally as well as when I’m among family. But most everyone within the Jewish community knows me as Amatziah. I’d never received any Rabbinic advice to stop using my original name, even while I was at yeshiva (I attended Shapell’s/Darche Noam in Jerusalem for slightly over a year post-college). I started introducing myself as Amatziah in Jewish settings sometime during my first year in Baltimore (where I’d moved to for graduate school) for reasons totally unrelated to halacha or frumkeit: I’d simply gotten tired of explaining my life history just about every time I’d meet someone new at shul or at a Shabbos table (“Isamu! What an interesting name! What sort of name is it? Oh, it’s Japanese? Wow!”). Not that I minded telling my life story; it was having to do it on a near-constant basis that eventually got burdensome. The irony, though, is that going by Amatziah didn’t turn out to be the perfect solution I’d imagined it would be. Although the name is straight out of Tanach, it is sufficiently underutilized as a given name that people I’d meet in Jewish circles would occasionally assume it was an exotic non-Jewish name. The most egregious example of this was one time, almost half a lifetime ago now, when an acquaintance at shul greeted me with a rendition of “Amatziah” that was a clear attempt at a Japanese accent (think John Belushi from “Samurai Delicatessen”). Realizing he’d been under the impression all this time that Amatziah was a Japanese name, I gently let him know that Amatziah is in fact the name of one of the kings of Yehudah (Judah) as recorded in Melachim (Kings) and Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles). But you can only soften such a correction so much – I just felt horrible afterwards. If any lesson can be derived from it, it’s that learning Na”ch is really, really important – something I haven’t done enough of myself!
Dr. Amatziah (a.k.a. Isamu) Hartman moved to Dallas with his wife, Dr. Rochel Hartman (a native of Tyler, Texas), in 2007 after completing his doctorate in Immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Originally joining UT Southwestern Medical Center as a postdoctoral researcher, he now works as a member of the university’s technology transfer office. Amatziah, Rochel, and their four children are members of Congregation Ohev Shalom, the Far North Dallas synagogue led by Rabbi Aryeh Rodin.